Town Hall with Rep. Sam Farr

SamFarrNewWhat are you, and others in congress, doing to address the problematic backlog of claims at the Veterans Benefits Administration, which is keeping so many returned soldiers from accessing their benefits? 

When a soldier puts on their uniform, they make a promise to defend our country at all costs. In exchange, we make a promise that our nation will never forget their service and will provide them with the benefits they earned. Unfortunately, our country is failing to live up to that promise.

The backlog at the Veterans Benefits Administration is nothing short of travesty. The inability to process claims in a timely manner has left our veterans without access to the benefits and healthcare they need.

As a member of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles veteran issues, I am working to end the VA backlog. We have provided the department with the funds necessary to implement a new Veterans Benefits Management System, an electronic processing system designed to end the backlog by 2015.

However, a new system is not enough; we also need to change the culture of the VA that exacerbated this problem. Earlier this year, I met with Secretary Eric Shinseki personally and told him to end the backlog. Shortly after that meeting, he announced that the department would expedite all claims over a year old. 

This is a step in the right direction but we must hold the VA’s feet to the fire. The FY 2014 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill passed last month included language requested by myself, Rep. Barbara Lee, Rep. Mike Thompson and other members of the California delegation that will do just that. This bill allows Congress to conduct additional oversight and requires regular updates from the department on the status of the backlog.

No veteran should have to wait for the benefits they earned. I plan to pursue every avenue possible until our country can once again say that we are living up to the promise we made to our veterans.

In light of the recent NSA leak, what are your thoughts about the mass-surveillance Prism program that was revealed?

The recent reports concerning the National Security Agency’s collection of customer data from the telecommunication companies are disturbing.  When the Patriot Act was first proposed in 2001, I was worried that it could be used to circumvent an individual’s privacy in the name of security. That is one of the reasons I voted against the legislation then and every time it was up for reauthorization since.

One of the things I find particularly troubling is the role of the FISA court in this program. The court is meant to be a check against the government’s power. Supporters of the Patriot Act told us that it would prevent violations of personal liberty. Yet every request made by the NSA under the PRISM program was approved by the FISA court. It cannot be a safeguard to our individual freedoms if the court is nothing more than a rubber stamp. 

As a nation, we need to use this controversy and the upcoming debate on the Intelligence Authorization Act, as an opportunity to reevaluate our methods of domestic surveillance. Instead of programs that infringe upon our rights, we need to develop programs that respect the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens.

National security should be one of the top priorities of any nation but we must weigh that against the foundations of our democracy. We should not abandon our freedoms in pursuit of safety. If we build too many walls to protect us, we may soon find ourselves living in a prison.

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